Nudgefail: The Case of Organ Donation

Behavioral economics is cool science with numerous applications. The concept of nudges, for example requiring newly hired workers to sign a form to stop automatic retirement contributions rather than having to sign a form to start them, is certainly useful in many contexts. But as I write in Washington Post’s Wonkblog, it can’t solve some problems, including the shortage of organ donations, which leaves over 120,000 Americans on the waiting list:

One commonly proposed solution to the organ shortage derives from behavioral economic “nudge” principles. Rather than requiring Americans to complete paperwork in order to opt-in to donation at death, the country could shift to the European model of presuming that donation at death was acceptable. But Tom Mone, chief executive of OneLegacy, the nation’s largest organ and tissue recovery organization, points out that “The recovery rate for deceased donors in the United States is actually better than that of European nations with presumed consent laws. The United States rigorously follows individual donor registrations whereas presumed consent countries actually defer to family objections.”

What this means on the ground, as Tom explained to me and our audience at a recent Stanford Health Policy Forum, is that when European health professionals show up to harvest organs from a newly dead individual, that person’s family often says “no way”, nudges be damned. The state could legally take the person’s organs by force of course, but unsurprisingly it does not. In contrast, in the US opt-in model, both families and the state respect the deceased donor’s wishes because they know they were the result of a proactive decision rather than a bureaucratically-designed nudge. More simply, an active choice has legitimacy that a nudged choice does not

Consider Staying in the Closet

Three phrases I am tired of hearing in the media: “Breaks his/her silence”, “the last taboo” and “comes out of the closet”. The first appears regularly on the magazines at the supermarket checkout. Magazine covers trumpet for example that — at last! — a 3rd rate television star is “breaking his silence” over the failure of his marriage to a 4th rate country and western singer. The implication is that the breaking of the blessed silence is a gift to the world and we should be grateful, but I wish these people would just shut up. Why should strewing intimate details of one’s life be laudable? And why should anyone care about these incontinent bores in the first place?

“The last taboo” and “coming out of the closet” have a parallel existence in journalism. When gay people came out of the closet it was courageous and remarkable. Today, these phrases adorn stories about people — elderporn enthusiasts, those who admit to being beautiful, people who pay to increase traffic to their website, people who hang glide in their underwear — whose coming out is neither dangerous nor it has to be said particularly interesting. Calling them taboo-breakers is at one level media hype and at another, cultural self-congratulation, as if as a society we are only getting more mature as we let underwear-clad hang gliders tell their heretofore hidden story to the world, even though it will no doubt rattle the foundations of the establishment (or at least annoy our parents).

Most of human existence is simply not that interesting and certainly not newsworthy. And in an era where everyone is tweeting what they had for breakfast, being filmed by covert keyhole cameras, putting photos of their latest drinking binge on Facebook and having their naked selfies released from the iCloud, even the most modestly engaging stuff in our lives is being over-shared. We’ve wiped out even more “last taboos” than we have #2 men in Al Qaeda.

This makes me think that the true radicals today, the ones who are actually taking a risk, are those who refuse to dish out their personal details to the world. To those of you who keep something in your life — anything — out of public view, let me express my respect and thanks. May others follow your brave example of staying in the closet.

Now that I am done ranting, I am going to go do a bunch of things that I refuse to reveal here.

Weekend Film Recommendation: Murder by the Clock

vlcsnap-2575882Halloween month on RBC is devoted to movies about ghoulies, ghosties, long-legged beasties and things that go bump in the night. This week, I offer an admittedly off-beat film recommendation from the early days of talkies: 1931′s Murder by the Clock.

The plot centers on the Endicotts, a wealthy family in decline. The parsimonious matriarch of the clan, Julia Endicott (Blanche Friderici), lives in fear of a Poe-style premature burial and laments the fact that her direct heir is a musclebound half-wit (Irving Pichel, in a quasi-Frankenstein Monster sort of role). Julia reluctantly decides to leave the family fortune to her drunken, ne’er do well nephew (Walter McGrail). But his scheming, sexually voracious wife (Lilyan Tashman) isn’t in a mood to wait for Julia to die of natural causes, and begins using her considerable feminine wiles to get multiple men to work her evil will. Murders and mystery ensue.

Fair warning: Movie sound technology was not well-developed when this film was made. Microphones on the set were few in number, often in fixed positions and of low quality. As a result, actors had to talk more slowly and clearly and not move around too much as they did so. This understandably comes across as stilted to modern audiences. But as with the famous Lugosi/Browning Dracula which came out the same year, if you can let those limits of early talkies go and just enjoy a scary story well told, Murder by the Clock will greatly entertain you.

62-lilyan-tashman-554x417In style and plot, this film is an agreeable cross between the haunted house pictures of prior years and the monster movies that were just becoming popular (like Dracula, Frankenstein also came out in 1931). The other enormous appeal of the movie is the campy, vampy work of Tashman, in a part that screams “pre-Hays Code”. Dressed in a series of outfits that leave little to the imagination she sexually disables virtually every male character in the story (Tashman was apparently a sexual dynamo in real life as well, though her energies were usually directed at women rather than men, allegedly including Greta Garbo). Tashman has a lot of fun going way over the top and it’s intentionally funny for the audience too, as were many of the classic monster movies of the 1930s.

The atmospheric photography is another asset of Murder by the Clock, and amplifies the mood effectively. That’s a credit to Karl Struss, one of the first famous cinematographers, who worked with many of the early giants: Murnau, Griffith, DeMille and Chaplin. Struss gives fans of scary movies what they want: eerie shots of dusty secret corridors, foggy graveyards, and killers skulking through abundant shadows

If you just can’t stand the technically-imposed limitations of early talkies, this movie is not for you. But otherwise Murder by the Clock offers creepy, campy fun for the Halloween season as well as being of historical interest for its look and pre-Hays code salaciousness.

p.s. Pachel went on to direct an ever better pre-Hays code film that I recommended here two years ago, The Most Dangerous Game. Note also that Murder by the Clock is in the public domain, and you ought to be able to find it for free online.

How UKIP Differs from the Tea Party

Americans who have heard of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) often assume that its members are roughly analogous to those of the U.S. Tea Party, i.e., disaffected conservatives who want the right-most party to move even further right. Some excellent political journalism has shown this is not correct, and a remarkable election result this past week underscores the point.

The setting was Heywood and Middleton, a Mancunian constituency in which Labour politicians have literally never lost a parliamentary election. I was acquainted with the late Jim Dobbin, who used to represent this pocket district, and he was with respect neither a scintillating orator nor entirely in step with many of his constituents on some social issues. But still, he was Labour, so like his predecessors he too always won, and by large margins.

Given this context, it is remarkable indeed that Jim’s Labour Party replacement almost lost the by-election to a UKIP candidate. In the 4 years since the last parliamentary election, UKIP increased its vote-share by a stunning 15-fold. If UKIP were truly just a party of disaffected Tories, this simply could not have happened in a Labour stronghold.

Ian Warren of Election Data blog did some revealing shoeleather reporting and data crunching regarding how UKIP did so well. He posted this photo of a UKIP voting neighborhood (that’s an “estate”, i.e., public housing) and pointed out that its not exactly the dwelling place of the horse and hound set.

hey3

Now take a moment to consider whether you think UKIP are just a problem for the Conservatives. Because this doesn’t look like a Conservative area to me. And consider that in May of this year UKIP took 42.3% of the vote here…..on these streets. Because at some stage somebody in Labour high command is going to need to explain to me how on earth they find themselves in a position where their bedrock supporters, the believers in ‘good old religion’ as I heard John McTernan call them last week, have simply stopped believing.

His whole analysis is worth reading. It reinforces my sense that the 2015 UK election is “everyone’s to lose”, by which I mean that, given the fracturing of old alliances and perspectives in the UK, there is an excellent chance that regardless of who wins, the majority of people who went to the polls are going to feel alienated from the new government from day one.

Weekend Film Recommendation: Grip of the Strangler

haunted_strangler_poster_02Following Johann’s recommendation of Manhunter last week, I keep our RBC Halloween month tradition alive by focusing in the coming weeks on horror films. When Jean Kent died late last year, I decided to watch one of her films that I had never seen, and came away happy that I did. In one of her many roles as a naughty British lass, Kent is a chanteuse/madam threatened by a serial killer apparently risen from the grave in this week’s film recommendation: Grip of the Strangler (aka The Haunted Strangler).

This 1958 film has a wonderful backstory involving Boris Karloff. Alex and Richard Gordon grew up loving Karloff in the classic Universal horror films made before the war. When the Gordons were young adults, Karloff’s cinema stardom had faded but he was still working on the London stage. The two fanboys approached their idol, and ever the gentlemen, Karloff treated them kindly. When the great man was 70, the Gordons had the chance they had always dreamed of to produce a movie for him.

kentThe plot is spooky and engaging, mixing elements of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Jack the Ripper and even Frankenstein. You can also see the beginnings of a return to sexual explicitness in British cinema here, particularly in the scenes in Kent’s bawdyhouse (the champagne spill scene with pinup model Vera Day has to be seen to be disbelieved). But those elements work well in the story, which concerns a moralistic late-Victorian Era social reformer (Karloff) who believes a strangler of attractive women is still at large in the streets of London. He’s a hothouse flower of a man who faints when he sees abuse of prisoners, is terrified of rats and is extremely ill at ease interacting with a woman of Kent’s sensually confident ilk. Yet he is also unaccountably obsessed with the strangler’s brutal sex crimes.

It’s not a big budget film, but you largely wouldn’t know it. Director Robert Day started his career as a cinematographer and clearly learned how to use shadows, fog and lighting to keep the audience from noticing any economies in set design and art direction. The professionalism of the cast helps a good deal too. There are some actors who can’t seem to do a B-movie without somehow conveying to their fans “wink wink, I’m phoning in my part just so you know I’m above all this”. But such self-indulgence was unheard of in this era of British film and the result is a much better movie.

Kent is clearly at home in her showy part, even though it is unfortunately smaller than it could have been. Karloff is nothing less than brilliant, conveying the admixture of desire and repression, rage and sadness present in his character.

This is not a widely-known film outside of the horror film buff community. But it has captured some important supporters, most notably The Criterion Collection, who have made a pristine print available for you to enjoy.

p.s. Interested in a different sort of film? Check out this list of prior RBC recommendations.

p.p.s. SPOILER ALERT: Karloff’s physical transformation is even more impressive when you learn that he did it without makeup!

The Only Interesting Thing About Meet the Press

Kevin Drum’s piece altered me to the fact that Jon Stewart was considered to be the next host of Meet the Press. I googled on “Meet the Press Jon Stewart” and found that Kevin’s was one of a tidal wave of pieces weighing in on this earthshattering revelation. The New York Times, Washington Post and US News and World Report were just a small set of the outlets that analyzed this Cuban Missile Crisis-Level near miss that might have destroyed our country forever. The Stewartgate coverage of course followed a good twelve months of virtually every political journalist in the country writing about how then-MTP host David Gregory was in trouble, and who would replace him, and would this person plunge the nation into peril or redeem its lost greatness (Lest you think that the recent spate of Meet the Press-related coverage was just because of Jon Stewart’s media profile, check out the non-Stewart-related MTP coverage at, to name only a few, New York Times, Washington Post, Politico, LA Times, Chicago Tribune, Huffington Post and FoxNews). God, the suspense of having our species’ future hinging on who — Dear Lord tell us, who? — would take the throne as Meet the Press host and thereby do something apparently quite important.

Or not. Seeing all these articles actually made me throw up a little in my mouth because I cannot take another round of journalists treating anything and everything that happens on MTP as more than remotely newsworthy. There are contests to name the most undercovered stories of the year in journalism. The goings-on at Meet the Press deserve the prize for the most overcovered story for several years running.

In the days when Lawrence Spivak walked the earth, Meet the Press developed an innovative concept in television: Have political journalists talk to each other and to politicians about the political events of the day. Since that time, this format has been copied to the point that one could literally watch such shows 24 hours a day every day if one were that masochistic. By Sunday everything momentous and everything trivial in the week’s politics has been chewed over 100 times already, and seeing the soggy orts remasticated on MTP et al. is the television version of experiencing “harsh interrogation methods”.

And alert to journalists: Almost no one other than you watches Meet the Press anymore. The many stories making a big deal about which of the Sunday morning shows is ranked first are analogous to making a big deal over who has the best batting average in Professional Baseball’s Double AA minor league system. Hit shows in the United States draw 10-20 million viewers per broadcast; you can be first among the not-so-vaunted Sunday morning talk show competition with less than 3 million viewers tuning in, counting all the people who are dozing off in the nursing home’s common room.

The only thing interesting about Meet the Press is that so many smart journalists think it’s interesting to anyone other than journalists. Please folks, find something more important to write about, like the war, the economy or what you did on your summer vacation.

Crime, De-Incarceration and the Economy

The estimable Zusha Elinson has a solid piece out at WSJ on the very happy news that California’s violent crime rate has dropped to a level not seen since 1967. Further, after rising slightly in 2012, the property crime rate resumed the downward course it has been on for some years. As Zusha notes, this fall in crime has occurred while de-incarceration has been underway:

The state-prison population has dropped by about 25,000 since 2011, when California embarked on a policy of “realignment,” which has moved some nonviolent offenders to counties.

The shift has resulted in thousands of people on the street who in the past would have been behind bars. To be sure, the county-jail population has grown by about 10,000. But some counties have been forced to release offenders because of overcrowding, while others are choosing rehabilitation programs over incarceration. In 2013, researchers found that 18,000 offenders who would have been in either prison or jail in years past weren’t serving time behind bars.

The article quotes Magnus Lofstrom explaining the 2013 drop as an effect of county rehabilitation programs and “an improving economy”. The former explanation is credible. The latter explanation is invoked almost daily to explain why incarceration can go down without crime going up in response, so it’s important to emphasize that — as counter-intuitive as it may sound — there is no evidence that a bad economy causes an increase in crime. To quote our own Mark Kleiman:

The Roaring Twenties were a high-crime period; the Great Depression was mostly peaceful. The economically stagnant Eisenhower era had crime rates at historic lows; the Kennedy-Johnson boom in economic growth accompanied an explosion in crime rates. The Great Crime Decline didn’t pause for the recession of 2000-2001.

The decline of crime and incarceration in tandem is thus not a special circumstance produced by an improving economy. Rather, it’s an entirely expected outcome of releasing people who didn’t need to be behind bars and instead providing supervision and rehabilitation services for them in the community.

An Old Leftist’s Dyspeptic Take on Britain’s Fuschia

Comedy writer Ian Martin at the Labour party anual conference.

Someone asks me why I’m here. I find myself saying: “Because I don’t think I’ve ever despised the Labour party as much as I do now and I’m thinking of rejoining it.”

That’s one of many choice lines in Ian Martin’s delightfully grumpy account of his experience at the British Labour Party Conference. Martin was the “profanity consultant” on The Thick of It, so if you enjoy the more brutal strain in British humor, his piece is worth reading for belly laughs alone.

But beyond that, it’s also a window into how British leftists of a particular generation are infuriated that the Labour Party will not return to its more openly Socialistic, pre-Blairite days:

Labour’s message to the electorate is clear – austerity is the new reality but we’re nicer than the Tories. Berks. I hate Labour more than I did when Blair was in charge, squinting into the distance, joshing with America, socialising with the Murdochs. At least he believed in neo-liberalism. The current Loyal Opposition half-believe, but also half-yearn to reconnect to the movement that sustains them, which is half-decent of them I must say. The first clear chance for years to differentiate themselves, to renounce austerity and commit to a genuine Labour manifesto, sod the Mail, renationalise, reunionise, tax the rich, protect the poor, FIGHT FOR THE WORKING CLASS WHICH IS TECHNICALLY THEIR FUCKING PURPOSE and all they can offer is the Vegetarian Option.

It did not surprise me at all to look up Martin’s birthdate and find that he came of age in the 1970s. I have a number of leftist British friends of about the same age who share his politics and his deep disappointment with Labour’s current outlook and approach. Leo Panitch, whose lambasting of Ed Milliband’s embrace of capitalism I quoted here recently, is about the same age.

They are nostalgic for the era of their youth, an entirely human impulse. They remember the 1970s as political heaven, when trade unions reigned supreme and the state was all-encompassing, spending almost half of national GDP. In their eyes, all it will take is a more staunchly leftist party, the proper rabble-rousing speeches and a courageous policy initiative to restore the country to what they consider its glory days.

This is the British version of Green Lanternism: If leftist leaders just had enough willpower, the world would, for example, gladly buy coal from unionized British miners at three times the price of Chinese or Indian coal. But in the globalized economy, a return to the hard-leftist British policies of the 1970s would get the country not the economy of 1970s Britain, but the economy of 2014 France.

If Ed Milliband becomes Prime Minister, national policies under his “responsible capitalism” approach will certainly differ in at least some respects from those of the current coalition government. The Labour platform suggests they will grow state services a bit, and tax and borrow a bit more to finance that growth. Whether one agrees with them or not, those are clearly consequential policy decisions that will influence the country. But they will not bring back the nationalized, unionized, centralized Britain of Ian Martin’s youth. Martin is of course entitled to despair at this, but he’s wrong to assume — as did UK conservatives of a prior generation who grieved the loss of the empire — that it’s within the power of any politician to restore an era that is gone forever.

Photo courtesy of The Grundian.

UPDATE: Andy Sabl, always a source of sound advice, informs me by email that term “Berk” requires an explanation. It’s Cockney Rhyming Slang (explanation here). There’s a Hunt in Berkshire and I think I will have to leave it at that.

Finding and Enjoying Older Movies

In the past three years, about 150 movies have been reviewed on RBC. Johann Koehler is a young, au courant scholar whose reviews include at least some films in recent release (e.g., Fruitvale Station, The Double). In contrast, my knowledge of recent pop culture does not go much beyond being excited about this Bob Bailey guy who recently took over from John Lund in the lead part of Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar. Most of my film recommendations as well as some of Johann’s and our occasional guest recommenders can thus sometimes be hard to find. Some RBC readers wrote me about this challenge and asked for suggestions about where to find older movies. This post is my response.

First, although I do not myself own a television, I am given to understand that there are channels that regularly feature older films. One of them is Turner Classic Movies (TCM), which also has a website packed with reviews and commentary on the films the channel shows. Another, American Movie Classics, has broken away from exclusive reliance on showing old films but still includes hours a days of classic film programming. A third possibility is IFC, which shows a mix of classic films as well as arty, offbeat and independent productions, including a number we have recommended here at RBC.

Second, a number of fine films have had their copyrights lapse and are available for free viewing. One place to find most of them is The Internet Archive. At RBC, we have recommended many public domain films, including Railroaded!, Nanook of the North, And Then There Were None and He Walked by Night.

Third, there are services on line that show films either in exchange for watching a few ads, or, charge an annual entry free that gives you unlimited access to their library. Examples include Hulu.com and crackle.com. I personally sign up each year for Amazon Prime, which has let me discover or re-watch many films that I have recommended or plan to recommend at RBC.

Fourth, consider buying DVD amalgamations of old movies. Here is one of many examples: 100 mystery movies for twelve bucks! Sure, some of them are stinkers, but if even only a third of them are good you are gaining fine movie viewing for less than a buck a film.

When sifting through old films that you purchase in this way or see scheduled on TV or a pay for service website, how do you pick the ones you will like? Rotten Tomatoes is one of many sites that provides useful guidance at no charge, as can a used movie guidebook (e.g., by Leonard Maltin or Roger Ebert) which you can usually find in bookstores for a couple bucks. Also of course, you can go through this site’s digest of recommendations for ideas. I have just updated our film recommendation log by adding in capsule summaries and links for all the movies Johann and I reviewed in past six months. Click here to see the list. Regardless of how up to date the digest is at any given moment, you can always get a list of our recent film recommendations by clicking on the FIlm category button on any recent review.

Happy viewing!